USL-1 season begins in two weeks and thanks to Brian Quarstad of Inside Minnesota Soccer for compiling this preview of USL-1. Tomorrow we’ll have our weekly MLS review and a preview of the CONCACAF Champions League semifinal second leg match between USL-1’s Islanders and Cruz Azul of the FMF.
For the record I believe the top three teams in USL-1 this season will be Puerto Rico, Carolina and Montreal.
Less that a week before the season opener, Inside Minnesota Soccer is proud to bring you the 2009 USL-1 Preview. IMS solicited the help of USL-1 team experts from around the country and edited and compiled those previews. A special thanks to Allison Andrews, Steven Beauregard, Mikey Buytas, Jarrett Campbell, Chris Grayson, Kartik Krishnaiyer, James Weise and Ed Zelaski for their cooperation in sharing their team knowledge.
2009 ULS-1 Team Previews
Austin Aztex by Chris Grayson
The Aztex joined USL-1 this year. Owner Phil Rawlins, a Stoke City FC board member, brings not only a partnership with that EPL club, but also a lifelong love of the sport and a wealth of sports-business experience. Head coach Adrian Heath has his own impressive football history, having played or managed at Stoke, Everton, Espanyol and Burnley FC. The groundwork of this club was laid last year, with the Aztex U23 team’s impressive debut in the PDL. Coach (and former NASL star) Wolfgang Suhnholz led the team to U.S. Open Cup qualification, then on to the conference final. As the Texas saying goes, this ain’t these fellas’ first rodeo.
The Aztex USL-1 roster features several standouts from last year’s PDL squad: Miguel Gallardo (2008 PDL Goalkeeper of the Year), Kieron Bernard, AJ Godbolt and Zach Pope. These are joined by promising international prospects, such as English forwards Gifton Noel-Williams and Eddie Johnson, Brazilian forward Sullivan Silva, English midfielder Alex Tapp and Welsh defender Gareth Evans.
With these players, Coach Heath plans to “develop a system of play that will be pleasing on the eye and, more importantly, produce attacking winning football.”
Carolina Railhawks by Jarrett Campbell
After their inaugural two seasons struggling to make the playoffs, big changes are in store for Carolina. Founder Chris Economides in now in the USL front office and coach Scott Schweitzer has been replaced by two-time USL-2 Coach of the Year Martin Rennie. The new RailHawks gaffer wasted no time in overhauling the roster that finished next to last in the league in goal differential in 2008.
Only 4 players remain from last season, notably team MVP Matt Watson and leading scorer Hamed Diallo. The incoming cast is a mix of players experienced at the highest level of international football – Marcelo Romero (La Liga) and Paul Ritchie (English Premier League), proven USL contributors – Aaron King (Charleston), Josh Gardner (Seattle), Mark Schulte (Cleveland), and Salleiu Bundu (Cleveland) and former MLS Reserves players – Brian Plotkin (Columbus), Daniel Paladini (Chivas USA), and Amir Lowery (San Jose). RailHawks fans will notice the changes immediately as is gone Schweitzer’s conservative 4-3-2-1 formation replaced by the much more aggressive 4-3-3 Rennie employs.
Fans should expect a focus on possession, width, and speed of play – a change that was evident as the RailHawks opened their pre-season with a 1-0 victory over the New England Revolution.
With the return of 11 players from last season, Charleston retains a good core of players. Off-season signings of Frankie Sanfilippo and Jamaician International O’Brian Woodbine, along with a rumored addition of Matt Bobo, should shore up the defense alongside stalwarts John Wilson and Nelson Akwari. Battery new boys Kenji Treschuk from Seattle and Tyler Hemming from Toronto FC, will have some big shoes to fill in the midfield after USL’s Rookie of the Year, Osvaldo Alonso, transferred to Major League Soccer’s Seattle Sounders. Another rumored addition to the midfield is Tsuyoshi Yoshitake of Japan’s J-League. His speed and pinpoint crosses could cause problems for many opponents this year.
If the play from the preseason tournament is any indication, the Battery should be solid in the back and dangerous going forward, a combination that should take them deep in the post-season and the US Open Cup once again.
Cleveland City Stars by Ed Zelaski and Brian Quarstad
After coming off a great season in 2008, the Cleveland City Stars have reinvented themselves in 2009. The defending USL-2 champions moved up to United Soccer Leagues First Division, hired Rod Underwood as the new head coach, and moved from the smaller Krenzler Field to the 5,000 seat Middlefield Cheese Stadium in Bedford.
Cleveland lost coach Martin Rennie, standout keeper Eric Reid and 2 time USL-2 player of the year, Mark Shulte, all moving to the Carolina Railhawks. Only a few players remain from last season’s USL-2 team Musa Otieno, Anthony Stovall, Jason Hotchkin, Ryan Stewart, and newly named team captain Godfrey Tenoff. Veteran USL player Leo Gibson will join the stars after 3 seasons with the Thunder, where he scored nine goals and five assists. Some incoming players have MLS experiance (Gordon Kljestan, Ricardo Pierre-Louis, Troy Roberts, Arsene Oka) and others have played in leagues around world (Warren Kanu, Tehteh Bangura, Paul Ballard, Terrence McAllister, Max Cream). Fans should expect to see the team move from the 4-3-3 formation former coach Martin Rennie used.The team will play in the classic 4-4-2.
The City Stars are a bit of an unknown. Getting into the playoffs would be a successful season for the league newcomers.
Miami FC by Kartik Krishnaiyer
Miami FC caused quite a splash with cleverly placed advertisements on the side of the field during El Salvador-United States World Cup qualifier in late March. Now the question is does Miami FC have the bite to back up that bark in 2009? Since the future of the club was in limbo for many months partly due to poor attendance and partly due to MLS flirtation with returning to the Miami market, the Blues are getting a late start.
Cristiano Dias and Walter Ramirez are the only returning contract players of note. Given the fickle nature of the South Florida market it’s critical that Miami FC regain its first season form of 2006. That season international stars like Romario and “El Loco” Rodriguez led the club to the playoffs. The last two seasons however have been less successful. Before the April 18th opener, Miami FC must settle on several more players to fill out its roster. The Blues have tried out several non-contract players including former Miami Fusion and LA Galaxy standout Diego Serna. If signed, Serna would help add credibility to Miami FC’s efforts to reach the core soccer fan in South Florida.
Minnesota Thunder by Brian Quarstad
Don Gramenz, former Thunder player, will be coaching the team after replacing Amos Magee mid-season of 2008. He found success and guided the team into the playoffs for the first time since 2004. Gramenz played a 3-5-2, but with speedy Stephen deRoux transferred to Montreal, the team most likely will fall back to a traditional 4-4-2.
Most of last year’s team was under contract for another season, but that didn’t stop the Thunder from acquiring several former MLS players. The additions of DC United’s Quavas Kirk and Rod Dyachenko at midfield are sure to strengthen the overall production. Nick Platter, one of the better keepers in the league, will again be between the sticks after coming very close to being signed by DC United. Free kick specialist Ricardo Sanchez will be back at midfield after scoring 10 goals and improving his overall play under Gramenz. Melvin Tarley, a consistent scorer in the league also had 10 goals but could have had far more with a better finishing touch. Also returning are two key players, captain and holding midfielder Jeremiah Bass and defender Jon Greenfield.
Playoffs should be expected this year but defense will be the key to progressing beyond the first round.
Montreal Impact by Steven Beauregard
The 2008 season was an extremely successful one for the Montreal Impact both on and off the field. It started with the opening of the 13,000 seat Saputo Stadium, leading up to the Canadian championship victory over MLS side Toronto FC and closing with a berth in the Concacaf champions league quarter-finals. Expectations are very high for the 2009 USL-1 campaign as fans are expecting nothing less then another berth in the CCL and the club’s 1st league title since 2004.
Technical director Nick De Santis managed to keep all of the Impact’s key players most notably resigning goalkeeper Matt Jordan, despite receiving multiple offers from several MLS teams, and midfield general Sandro Grande to multi-year contracts. If you add in the additions of forward Eduardo Sebrango, who was a vital part of the Vancouver Whitecaps 2008 championship team, and 2008 USL-1 first team all-star Stephen deRoux from Minnesota, the Impact lineup has depth at every position and has no visible weaknesses.
Given the experience and talent of this squad, expect the Impact to be near the top of the USL-1 table and having had a taste of international competition, they will once again do everything they can to prevail in the Canadian championship and represent Canada in the CCL. Allez Montréal!
Portland Timbers by Allison Andrews
After finishing at the bottom of the table in 2008, major changes would be expected for the Portland Timbers, and that turns out to be an understatement as it will be almost a completely new team that takes to the field in 2009.
The only likely returning starters from the 2008 squad are defenders Scot Thompson and Cameron Knowles, along with forward Takayuki Suzuki. Former LA Galaxy keeper Steve Cronin will be in goal with former Colorado Rapids defenseman Stephen Keel and former Defender of the Year David Hayes, who comes over from the Atlanta Silverbacks, likely to fill out the defensive line. The midfield is loaded with new players, with Johan Claesson (Sweden), Tony McManus (Atlanta), Keith Savage (Chivas USA), Alex Nimo (Real Salt Lake), and Ryan Pore (KC Wizards) likely competing for the midfield spots. Suzuki will look to improve on a disappointing 2008 season with Mandjou Keita (Guinea), Jason McLaughlin (Atlanta) and Antouman Jallow (Sweden) also competing for starting spots.
The defense is likely to be among the league’s best in 2009, but it will be up to coach Gavin Wilkinson to find some chemistry among all of the new midfielders and forwards in order to climb the table in 2009.
Puerto Rico Islanders by Kartik Krishnaiyer
The Puerto Rico Islanders have raised the profile of USL-1 immensely with a remarkable run in the CONCACAF Champions League. Not only have the Islanders advanced further than any MLS club but they now stand on the brink of a trip to the finals. Regardless of what happens in Mexico City on April 7th, the Islanders have a USL campaign to focus on.
Manager Colin Clarke aka the General has upgraded his squad by bringing in Nicholas Addlery from Vancouver as well as former Galaxy starter Kyle Veris who returns from Norway. Jonny Steele, the league MVP returns, as does defender of the year Christian Arrieta. Bill Gaudette remains one of the top keepers in the league, while Noah Delgado provides critical link up play. Kendall Jagdeosingh is a counter attacking threat late in matches and keep an eye on useful withdrawn forward Josh Hansen this season. Clarke likes Hansen’s game and he could be a key ingredient.
Given the Islanders depth, quality, experience and coaching it’s hard to imagine this team not contending for the title again this season. CONCACAF comes first but after that is done, expect a fierce run at another Commissioners’ Cup from this squad.
Rochester Rhinos by James Weise
The 2008 season started out in chaos for the Rhinos as a new owner (Rob
Clark) and a new head coach (former Rhinos player Darren Tilley) came on board late in the off-season. The team gathered steam as 2008 moved along and the season ended with loss late in stoppage time in Puerto Rico during the USL 1st Division Semifinals.
This season the Rhinos have their head coach and 12 players back and they have the benefit of a full pre-season to get everyone on the same page. The big losses for the club will be player/ assistant coach Steve Guppy (assistant coach in Colorado), defender Scott Palguta (Colorado Rapids), defender Ross Smith (heart surgery), and midfielder Luke Kreamalmayer (Carolina RailHawks). The Rhinos have added Brent Sancho (Atlanta) and Kwame Sarkodie (Cleveland) on defense and Tai Atieno (Puerto Rico) up top to try and shore up some areas of need.
As always, the team will look to add some hardware to the trophy case. The two areas of concern will be consistent production from their forwards and whether the team has enough defensive depth to withstand any potential injuries along the way.
Vancouver Whitecaps by Brian Quarstad
The Vancouver Whitecaps not only finished 2nd place in 2008 league play with 53 points, only one behind table leading Puerto Rico, but went on to defeat all opponents in the playoffs, including the Islanders in an exciting 2-1 win at a packed Swangard Stadium — their second trophy in two years. However, in typical USL fashion, the 2009 roster will look very different.
Teitur Thordarson will again be at the helm for the Caps. However, the team has lost veterans Jeff Clarke, Steve Kindell, and Alfredo Valente. Also gone are team leading scorers Nicholas Addlery and Eduardo Sebrango. Charles Gbeke will be looked upon to pick up the slack. Veteran USL winger and forward Ansu Torre, a new signing for the team, could also be a solution to find goals if the player were to find his scoring touch. He had 6 for both Minnesota and Atlanta. Journeyman midfielder Martin Nash’s leadership will be called upon to sync the team on and off the field. With the recent acquisition of 27-year-old veteran MLS centerback Jeff Parke and the return of goalkeeper Jay Nolly, the backline should be solid.
The key to success will be making up for the loss of the Caps proven goal scorers.